Stewart's "rookie" team feeling fine By Shawn A. Akers HUNTERSVILLE, N.C.
A rookie team, a rookie driver, a rookie crew chief. Talk about having the odds stacked against you in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. But then, with the resources available to Joe Gibbs' No. 20 The Home Depot Pontiac team, Greg Zippadelli has never thought about it in those terms. The crew chief of Gibbs' new team is looking at the 1999 season as a chance for he, the team and driver Tony Stewart to accomplish something special.
"You look at the fact that this is a brand new team, and that Tony has never driven a Winston Cup car competitively and that I've never been a crew chief at this level, and yeah, you'd think that we've got a real uphill battle ahead of us," said Zippadelli, a former crew chief in the Busch North Series, a part of the NASCAR Touring Division. "Yeah, we know we have to go out there and prove ourselves because we're not going to get much help from a lot of people.
"But just being a part of this team is unbelievable. We've got an owner that is fully committed to making this team as strong as his other one (the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team, with driver Bobby Labonte). You've got a sponsor that's really behind us. And, you've got a driver that is hungry to prove himself in NASCAR. I think we're going to have a better year than a lot of people might expect."
A former Indy Racing League champion, Stewart got his feet wet in NASCAR in 1998 when he competed in 22 NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division races for Joe Gibbs Racing. He managed five top-10 and five top-five finishes, including two second-place runs (at Rockingham in February and New Hampshire in May).
Gibbs' ultimate plan, however, was to move Stewart up to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series by 1999, and he secured The Home Depot as a primary sponsor for his second team. Later, Zipadelli came on board to complete the deal.
Both of Gibbs' teams moved into their new home -- an immaculate 100,000-square-foot facility in a business park here -- recently. Zipadelli said he and his team feel right at home with the reception and the response they've gotten from the 18 team.
"This is a great group of people here," Zipadelli said. "And I thought the toughest job would be to assemble this team, but the response we got to hire people here was incredible. They wanted to join our team, even though it's a first-year operation.
"And this place (the facility) is incredible. Everybody is still adjusting to it. Joe has done a good job of getting things organized, and everybody here is working together for the benefit of both teams. It's actually a one-car team that will race two cars. It's different than anything I've ever experienced."
The No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac team has already tested at Talladega (in November) with one of Labonte's backup cars, and Zipadelli said the results were favorable. The team plans test sessions in January at Las Vegas, Daytona and Rockingham and another is scheduled later at Darlington to help it prepare for the opening races of the 1999 season.
The team has already built nine cars, and Zipadelli said they hope to have another two finished by the time February rolls around.
"I think we're in really good shape at this point," Zipadelli said. "We will be, at least, when we go testing. We want to get out there and just run as fast as we can. I know Tony's eager to get going. And Joe (Gibbs) seems to be happy with the way everything's going with the team so far.
"Our main goal for the season right now is just qualifying for every race. With as competitive as Winston Cup is these days, that's huge. To accomplish that would be incredible. But we also want to make ourselves competitive enough to maybe have a chance to win a race and get a few top-fives. A rookie team doing that would really be impressive."
Source: NASCAR Online